Lifestyle & Belief

TomJoad: Cellphones and toilets are apples and oranges

You may be surprised and outraged that India has more cell phones than it does toilets, but I'm not. Even if, according to most media outlets, that seems to be the top-line discovery in the latest census results on housing conditions (released Wednesday).

It's not that I've been known to prefer a solitary bush or a nice thicket to a stinking, government-built latrine, though I'll cop to that.

I'm not surprised because cell phones are easy to buy and maintain, and because they offer useful and income-generating services that aren't otherwise available. Meanwhile, you can take a dump just about anywhere, and if you live in a one room shanty or under a plastic sheet someplace, there's not much room for a commode.

I think my colleagues from Indian newspapers ranging from Business Standard to the Indian Express know that. And I'm pretty sure the western hacks from the Australian Age to the BBC to the Toronto Globe and Mail know it too. I'll give everybody the benefit of the doubt and say that the point in focusing on the contrasting availability of phones and toilets was to show that India has failed miserably in providing public housing. Or (less convincingly) that the government should work harder to build community latrines all over the map.

But that's not what it sounds like. What it sounds like is a slam on poor people for being too dumb to realize that it's more important to be clean than to be connected. And there's more than a faint echo of a complaint you used to hear from middle class Indians a couple years ago, when their maids and drivers started getting cell phones of their own: "Even *these people* have phones now." (Okay, it was expressed half in enthusiasm, but the other half was disappointment. One more bastion of superiority punctured.)

Here's the deal: About 63 percent of Indians have a mobile phone, and about 50 percent crap outdoors (presumably out of necessity). Maybe that's because half the people live in houses without drains.

Why do we have to bring mobiles into it? Is it because there's no better symbol of the "new" India? So is outsourcing, but nobody is saying "Half of Indians have TVs but only 3 percent have an Internet connection." And if it's about public health, nobody's saying, "Half of Indians have toilets, but only a third have access to purified water."

I know this will just earn me a good flaming from my old friends the India-basher bashers. But I think the reason is hidden in another stat revealed (separately) by the Business Standard: Rural India is catching up to urban India on a host of measures -- electrification, running water, banking facilities, assets, bathing facilities and (yep!) even toilets.

Pretty soon I'll be listening to folks saying, "Now even these people use western-style loos!"